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Westside Alliance emerges amidst period of revitalization

Westside the best side?

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Welling Clark has a vision for OCC. - SALLIE CLARK
  • Sallie Clark
  • Welling Clark has a vision for OCC.

Welling Clark, long-time leader of the city's geographically biggest neighborhood association, is stepping down, but with plans to step up the Westside's profile.

The new president of the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN) is former secretary Jim Thompson, a contractor who Clark praised as "a real common sense kind of guy." OWN will become one of three main pillars in Clark's new endeavor, called the Westside Alliance.

"It'll be like the Downtown Partnership, but for the Westside," says Clark, who runs a bed-and-breakfast with his wife, former El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark. "I want to get all the different organizations over here — especially the [Old Colorado City Historical Society], Colorado Avenue business owners and the neighbors — in conversation, working together so the Westside has a single, unified voice."

The Downtown Partnership performs that general function downtown as a 501(c)4 "social welfare organization" with a 501(c3) charitable arm that also gets government contracts for development in its business improvement district. The Westside Alliance, on the other hand, won't incorporate — rather, it'll be an informal type of stakeholder coalition with hardly any budget.

Since the Westside is a revitalizing mixed-use area, Clark feels like "what's good for the businesses is good for the neighbors and vice versa ... And when we can all agree on what we want, we should really have the political clout to go right to the source and get it done."

A test of that concept is already in motion at the heart of Old Colorado City — Bancroft Park. A nighttime blaze in January, believed to have been sparked by a transient person's campfire, caused severe damage to the park's bandshell that hosts concerts, plays and other public events. The bandshell has since been boarded up, forcing events planned there to cancel.

In March, departing District 3 Councilor Keith King reportedly convinced the Mayor's Office, which oversees the Parks Department, to prioritize funding the fixes by agreeing to vote "yes" on allocating $500,000 in Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax to the downtown U.S. Olympic Museum project. Council eventually appropriated about $250,000 to Bancroft Park — $150,000 from the Conservation Trust Fund and $100,000 from the general fund (to be almost entirely reimbursed by the city's insurer).

Parks officials have since held two well-attended meetings for Westside residents to offer input on the renovation. Several priorities in addition to bandshell repair emerged, including better security and more accessible public restrooms. The Parks Advisory Board will hear the final action plan 7:30 a.m. on May 11 at the city administrative building at 1401 Recreation Way. Public comment will be taken then, and, in the meantime, details can be found online at coloradosprings.gov/Bancroft.

Clark sees Bancroft as the first step in coalescing what will become the Westside Alliance (though plans to redevelop No Man's Land, a multi-jurisdictional conundrum of an area between OCC and Manitou Springs, also spawned lasting partnerships). "We want to get the whole avenue working together [to] optimize tourism, transportation flow and our recreational aspects," Clark says, adding that, in his mind, successful revitalization would remove not-so-family-friendly elements (like, the presence of panhandlers and pot-smoking).

Still, the Westside is about as vital as it's ever been, according to local history buff, Dave Hughes. Originally home to Ute Indians, the land was colonized by white settlers in the mid-19th century. In 1861 OCC was Colorado's territorial capital for a fleeting five days before Denver "stole" the designation, he says. It wasn't until 1917 that OCC was incorporated into Colorado Springs. In those early days, gold mining and processing was a big boon, as were the railroads that transported those materials. There was a strip of saloons on Colorado Avenue then that accommodated the railroad workers who'd spend layovers in town, as well as a mini red light district on Cucharras Street. (Nearby "church row" served the next morning's repentance needs.)

Mining activities took a dip during World War II, but the commercial corridor got a bit more touristy then to support traffic coming through en route to Manitou Springs. When U.S. 24 was built as a bypass to the mountains, however, Colorado Avenue was no longer the only route west, so economic activity started to die out in OCC.

"The buildings weren't getting torn down, but they also weren't being bought up because the city put a circle around the area, calling it slum and blight," Hughes recalls.

After seeing some historic downtown buildings demolished in the 1970s, Hughes and his business partner vowed to avoid a similar fate on the Westside. They developed a financing strategy that leveraged federal dollars to revamp small businesses, but preserve the buildings' historic character.

"The business owners, they just snatched it up," Hughes says. And that ushered in a new era of tourism-based economic activity in OCC, where heritage is still a main selling point. Subsequent house-flipping has inched the blue collar neighborhood into higher-end territory, with the real estate website Zillow.com reporting the median price of homes currently listed in OCC at $269,900.

"There's no reason that vitality can't go on indefinitely," Hughes muses.

Of course, there's the possibility that long-time residents get left behind. Dave Munger of the Council of Neighborhood Organizations (CONO) says it's well-established that wealthier residents tend to participate more in neighborhood improvements, while lower-income people without spare time or energy don't as much. "That's the challenge on the Westside," Munger says. "But I think [Clark's Westside Alliance] is a good idea, especially if they can figure out how to get the maximum number of people involved in neighborhood life."

There's no "one size fits all" approach in a city with disparate and distinct neighborhoods, but Munger says he's hearing similar murmurings in other parts of town, too. He predicts, "We'll see this model crop up throughout the city."

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